Resurrecting the trilemma

Jesus

In my last post (CS Lewis’ trilemma – not so effective now?), I discussed the much used argument, made famous by CS Lewis, that Jesus claimed to be divine, something a good and sane person would not do. Therefore Jesus must either have not been good, or not sane, or he was indeed divine.

The argument is now commonly met by the counter argument that Jesus never claimed to be divine, it was just something made up by his followers. Any attempt to use the New Testament to support the argument is met with scorn – why should we believe it?

But there is still a way to use the argument, we just have to be better prepared.

Finding common ground

For any discussion or argument to proceed, those involved need to share some common ground. Obviously they need to understand each other’s language. But they also need to share the same set of assumptions – if they don’t, the discussion will keep reaching an impasse.

Belief in the truth of the New Testament is not common ground with most non-christians. We need to find something else.

Secular historians do not treat the Bible as a divinely inspired book. Rather, they approach each of the documents that make up the Bible as they would any other document, and assess its historical value by various criteria, such as whether an event or teaching is found in multiple sources, and whether it fits with the culture and language of the time and with other known history.

Thus, if we use the conclusions of secular historians (some of whom are christians, but others are not) as a starting point, we may have common ground. (In my experience, many non-believers will not even accept that lowest common denominator, but this does at least mean we are the ones being rational and basing our views on the evidence, and leaves the non-believers having to justify why they don’t accept the evidence of the best scholars.)

So, is there enough that most scholars accept as genuine to show that Jesus claimed to be divine?

Did Jesus claim to be divine?

Using passages which even non-christian historians generally accept as genuine, an impressive case can be built, based on the following (for a more detailed discussion, see Jesus – son of God?):

  1. Jesus believed he was inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth. He taught that God’s judgment of people would be based on how they responded to him. He believed his death would save the human race. And he told his disciples one day they would sit at his side and rule over the nation of Israel. All of these indicate he saw himself as God’s special representative on earth.
  2. Jesus used the titles Messiah, Son of man and Son of God to describe himself. These also are claims to be God’s special representative on earth, and there are several passages where Jesus clearly identified himself as God’s son in a way no human being could be – for example Mark 12:1-9 and Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
  3. Jesus claimed divine authority when he forgave sins, performed healings and exorcisms, and said his teachings had greater authority than the God-given Old testament Law.
  4. Jesus prayed to God as “Abba”, “My Father”, an expression of a familiar relationship with God.

I have not used the many “I am” statements in John’s gospel because many scholars do not accept that John records the words of Jesus, but rather his own interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.

Conclusion

It seems clear, even using only passages that most scholars accept as genuine, that Jesus made some amazing claims that he was more than a “mere man”, and some which can only be reasonably interpreted as making an implicit claim to be divine. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham sums it up:

“The only Jesus we can plausibly find in the sources is a Jesus who, though usually reticent about it, speaks and acts for God in a way that far surpassed the authority of a prophet in the Jewish tradition. …. such prerogatives belong uniquely to God and cannot simply be delegated to someone else.”

Not all scholars will accept Jesus’ divinity as a fact of history, but using the facts they do accept a case can be made that Jesus did indeed claim to be divine – and therefore the old argument still stands. To negate the argument, non-believers have to go against the conclusions of the consensus of historians.

I suggest we should still use the trilemma in a modified form, but we need to do our research and put together some quotes and conclusions from secular scholars. This may not be an easy task for some people, but I can recommend the discussion of this matter in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith as a good start.

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5 thoughts on “Resurrecting the trilemma

  1. Rory says:

    What does the phrase, “passages that most scholars accept as genuine”, actually mean?

    Does it mean, “we can pretty much accept that Jesus did say these words,” or does it mean, “we can pretty much accept that someone said that Jesus said these words”?

    John is discounted because ‘scholars agree’ that he was merely presenting an interpretation of what Jesus meant – but, is it not generally agreed that belief in the Christ is primarily an act of faith? Is it not possible that the three other gospel writers were also presenting an interpretation of what Jesus said based on the conviction that he was the promised Messiah?

    I think he was neither liar, lunatic, nor the Lord – but, I think the real man, and the revolutionary truths he was trying to make known, became obscured by the Messiah fervour that followed in his wake.

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  2. unklee says:

    G’day Rory, thanks for your comments and question.

    What does the phrase, “passages that most scholars accept as genuine”, actually mean?

    Does it mean, “we can pretty much accept that Jesus did say these words,” or does it mean, “we can pretty much accept that someone said that Jesus said these words”?

    I meant the former. It is obvious that someone said that Jesus said these words because we couldn’t read them if they hadn’t. But of the words we have that somebody said, historians and textual critics argue over which were really said and done by Jesus and which either weren’t, or we cannot be very confident. Most of the texts I have quoted come from the sayings that most historians would accept as probably genuine.

    Is it not possible that the three other gospel writers were also presenting an interpretation of what Jesus said based on the conviction that he was the promised Messiah?

    Scholars recognise that the gospels are not dispassionate history but rather biography with theological content, that aims to convince people. This doesn’t stop them from trying to separate out the history and the theology – after all, they are used to it because very little history in those days didn’t have an agenda.

    I think the real man, and the revolutionary truths he was trying to make known, became obscured by the Messiah fervour that followed in his wake.

    I don’t think you are the only one who thinks this, but the passages I have quoted above suggest otherwise, in my opinion. Do you think they can be interpreted differently?

    Best wishes.

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  3. Joel says:

    I wouldn’t say the things you listed add up to claim to divinity per

    The trilemma is often criticized for assuming that the Gospels are reliable. But the thing to keep in mind is that most of Mere Christianity was originally delivered as a series of radio lectures while London was being bombed by the Nazis – so given the medium and the audience, not all the arguments will be completely developed. And much of the audience would be inclined to view the Gospels as at least roughly accurate even if they do not accept the miracles.

    Also, Josh McDowell is more guilty of overreaching on the argument than Lewis is.

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  4. Joel says:

    Oops, I was going to write in the first paragraph that the things you listed don’t add up to an explicit claim to divinity so much as claiming to have authority that only God has – but after rereading, you basically acknowledged that.

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  5. unklee says:

    Joel,

    Yes I think I agree with your two points: that CS Lewis spoke/wrote in a time when his audience would have accepted the general historicity of the NT and that Jesus’ claims for divinity are more implicit than explicit. But as Bauckham says, in context, it is hard to interpret them any other way.

    Thanks for commenting.

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